What would you do? THE FOLLOWUP

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on October 13th, 2012

Two days ago, we posted about tonight’s (Friday’s) segment on ABC’s What Would You Do? in which comedian Rich Vos was enlisted in one of the show’s hidden camera gags.

From what we can tell by watching the trailer, they tape a bunch of people at a comedy show and record their reactions as Vos does a Rickles-from-hell number on the club patrons. The headline on the video clip is “Comic takes insult jokes too far, audience boos.” The voiceover says, “Would you stand up to the standup?”

And, as Quinones and crew are depicted breaking in for the “reveal,” the episode is described as “An hour so explosive, we almost couldn’t break in fast enough!” The trailer depicts various patrons reacting to Vos’ insults– booing, shouting at Vos (at one point, telling him he “stinks!”), with some appearing to get up and walk out.

Of course, we’re sure that the “explosive” hour will turn out, upon viewing, to be not nearly as incendiary as it’s depicted in the breathless and craftily edited trailer, but we’re still rather nervous about the whole thing.

Turns out we had reason to be nervous.

The segment, as aired, while it may have been entertaining, was a failure as a psych experiment. And, if we regard it as a sociology experiment, it was, as the eggheads say, “flawed.” They set it up, they planted some people in the audience to act as foils for the comedian’s barbs and then the cameras rolled as the uncomfortable patrons fidgeted, contemplated walking out or, in a few cases, became verbal in registering their discomfort with what was transpiring. They made a passing reference to Daniel Tosh and the controversy he encountered in a Hollywood nightclub back in July, but, outside of that, the prank bore little resemblance to that situation, nor did it directly address any of the issues involved in the Tosh incident. To be fair, there was a gang of comedy fans in the back of the room who actually dug what was going down… or at the very least, they had a better grasp on the boundaries of a comedy club and the First Amendment (and a healthy hostility toward “political correctness”) than most comedy club patrons do. But the overall focus was on the folks who were livid.

Vos was properly presented as a veteran comedian and it was quite clear that he was in on the gag and that he was doing an exaggerated version of what he does in his nightclub act. But after the reveal, he was given an alarmingly short amount of time to expound on the comics’ side of the story. Vos is understandably peeved and he said as much in a recent Facebook status, posted after the show aired tonight:

To anyone that watched WWYD I take my career very seriously, and I am very pro First Amendment. When I was asked to do the show I said under one circumstance– That when I do the show in an interview I stand up for comics and get to say the only recourse an audience member has, if offended, is to get up and leave. The show agreed. In my interview they asked, “When does a comic go too far?” I said, “Never.” I asked, “When does a rap group go too far? When does a movie go too far?” I then said people should do research to know who they are going to see. I made it perfectly clear the audience has no right to yell or disrupt the show– get up and leave if you don’t like it. Well I got a call Thursday– the head of the news network said to take out that part and there was nothing I could do. I was quite edgy and rough but it’s network, so they aren’t going to air what most people know I do. I have taped specials where they have chopped up bits, taken out bits, there is almost nothing you can do unless it’s your show and you have the power to say “That stays in.” Other comics were at the taping and saw me interviewed. You don’t always make the right choices in life and career. I shouldn’t have trusted they would put my interview in. Live and learn.

Live and learn, indeed.

It’s fascinating that the folks who produce a show called “What Would You Do?”– which is a show that seeks to discern the moral values of regular citizens– have basically behaved in a less than upstanding way. What would ABC do? They would enlist the services of a professional comedian, promise him one thing, then do another. And in the process, they present a lopsided– and wholly unrealistic– scenario in a comedy club and seek to make the comedian– and all comedians!– look bad. And they also indirectly give comedy club patrons the idea that they are totally justified in interrupting the show.

In order to concoct the situation they wanted, they asked Vos to do something that he wouldn’t normally do– that is, mercilessly berate someone in the audience, and continue to do so even after the audience– and the “victims” of his vitriol– have made it clear that they’re unhappy. Professional comedians– all of them– know when to pull back, know when to dig in. And they can sense when an audience’s mood is turning against them. We’re like sailors who can sense a subtle change in the weather by observing seemingly unimportant details in the wind or the sky. We’re adept at picking up on the subliminal signals given off by audiences or audience members. We rarely, if ever, provoke the kind of full-scale revolt depicted in tonight’s show. One of the “Fat White Chicks” that served as a “victim” was actually “crying!” No comic in his right mind would 1)abuse an audience member to the point of tears or 2)fail to pull back and defuse the situation once the waterworks started. Vos was asked to violate those rules for the sake of the prank. But this wasn’t made clear enough for our liking. And it could have been handled quickly, with just a sentence or two. It was falsely represented that a comic would be mean just for the sake of being mean. A comic– even an “insult comic” is being “mean” to get laughs. (Of course, there are examples throughout comedy history of a comedian who has violated 1 and 2 above, but it’s rare. It’s the exception. And, again, it’s a subtle thing. And, if a patron thinks that things are going too far, he/she should leave, not stand up and disrupt the show.)

The segment was a failure. And it could possibly be a bad thing for live standup. Folks could get the wrong idea that failing to stand up and defend an audience member who is being berated by a comedian are somehow doing the wrong thing. It’s a dangerous notion to say the least.

The episode of WWYD will probably be available for viewing shortly on ABC.com.